Tag Archives: Belgrade Theatre Coventry

Squid Pro Quo

OCTOPUS SOUP!

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Monday 5th February, 2019

 

This production is the world premiere of a brand-new farce, written by Jack Milner and Mark Stevenson.  Certainly, many of the key ingredients are here: heightened situations, people talking at cross-purposes – the protagonist even gets his trousers off in the first couple of minutes!  And yes, it is very funny but, as it turns out, this farce is more than frothy entertainment.  Like the titular dish, there are meaty bits to chew on…

Nick Hancock is tightly wound insurance consultant Seymour Norse, preparing for a video call with Gillian Bevan’s formidable CEO, Virginia Whale.  Having a character on-screen brings this conventional format up-to-date, and there is a lot of mileage in what Virginia is permitted to see and hear, thanks to the ministrations of hapless, arthritic burglar, Marvin Haynes (Paul Bradley on excellent form).  Add to the mix, Carolyn Backhouse as Gloria, Seymour’s histrionic actress wife, and The Bill’s Eric Richard as menacing underworld boss, Alan, and the stage is set for a fraught dinner party, full of misunderstandings and cracking one-liners – all while trying not to stress out Terry, the burglar’s pet octopus.  Hancock and Bradley make a fine duo, and Backhouse is a scream as the egotistical Gloria.  Eric Richard has a strong presence, on the other side of the law for once, and Gillian Bevan is both glamorous and haughty.  As the plot extends its tentacles, pulling everyone into a scam that could be worth billions, it’s every person for themselves.

It’s in the second act that the show’s message comes to the fore.  Milner and Stevenson use a dated, conventional format to speak to us of the present.  “What the world needs now is brains not bullets” is just the start of it.  Parallels are drawn between insurance CEO Virginia and organised crime boss Alan: capitalism is criminal activity, or certainly immoral and unethical, legal though it may be.  Seymour finally gets to deliver his presentation, a plea for the rehabilitation of the financial sector the world so desperately needs.

Played with energy and conviction by all concerned, this is a hugely enjoyable piece of work, and you get the feeling that things are tightening up as the run gets into its stride.  Pacing is everything in farcical situations and director Joe Harmston clearly has an eye for comic business and another for building tension.

Like Terry the octopus, this show has legs…

Nick Hancock and Paul Bradley in Octopus Soup! - credit Robert Day

NIck Hancock and Paul Bradley in one of the show’s calmer moments! (Photo: Robert Day)

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Best Case Scenario

THE VERDICT

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 30th January, 2019

 

Famously made into a Paul Newman film in 1982, Barry Reed’s book is here adapted for the stage by Margaret May Hobbs.  There is a strong affinity between the law court and the theatre, because of the rituals, the adversarial nature of the lawyers, and the potential for surprise.

The first act is split mainly between Frank Galvin’s shabby office and Meehan’s Irish bar in Boston, with the odd scene in Galvin’s rival’s office and a judge’s chambers, all presented on a sturdy, detailed set designed by Michael Lunney.  The set adds weight to the drama and, along with the convincing accents of the cast, gives the piece an authentic tone.

As plucky attorney, Frank Galvin, Ian Kelsey is eminently watchable, wearing the role like a pair of comfortable old shoes.  Drinking incessantly, it seems, and viewing the world through Jameson’s-tinted glasses, he is the decent man, standing up for the helpless (in this instance, a young mother reduced to a persistent vegetative state by alleged medical neglect).  Assisting him is his mentor, the irascible Moe Katz, played by the ever-excellent Denis Lill.

Christopher Ettridge also impresses as the big bad lawyer, defending the hospital and the church dioceses that runs it.  As does Richard Walsh as Bishop Brophy, who rounds out a potentially villainous role with humanity.

It’s a large and strong cast with pleasing character work from the likes of Anne Kavanagh as the victim’s mother, Michael Lunney as genial bartender Eugene, and Okon Jones in a hugely enjoyable portrayal of expert witness Lionel B Thompson.  Paul Opacic is suitably suave and assured as flashy doctor Rexford Towler, and there is a striking cameo from Karen Drury as Nurse Mary Rooney.

It’s a wordy piece but is so compellingly played you hardly notice the lengthy running time.  It’s a slow-burner, gradually establishing the background of the case, leading up to a trial scene that does not disappoint.  Michael Lunney’s (that name again!) direction paces the action superbly, so that when the shocks and revelations come, he elicits gasps and murmurs from the enrapt audience.

This high-quality production rewards the attentive audience – and, on a side-note, it also serves as a stark reminder that our American cousins have to pay exorbitant sums for their health care, a sorry state of affairs we must not allow to become the case here, as some in our present government would wish.

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Dream team: Ian Kelsey and Denis Lill

 

 


Woke!

SLEEPING BEAUTY

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 23rd November, 2018

 

No matter how beautiful you are, there’s no danger of dozing off during this year’s festive offering at the Belgrade.  As usual, it’s written and directed by the mighty Iain Lauchlan, who also appears as amiable dame, Nanny Fanny McWheeze, this is a cavalcade of fun, showing off Lauchlan’s mastery of the form, his skills as a performer, and crucially, his innovations.  For example, the traditional slosh scene (icing a cake) is set-up brilliantly, involving an Alexa-type device (a Scottish version named Morag!) who reels off the instructions of how to play the sport curling, which the cast mistake for cake-decorating tips.  Add to the mix, a hapless member of the audience who is game for a laugh, and this extended slapstick scene builds superbly.  Genius!

Also returning is Lauchlan’s regular stage partner, the hilarious Craig Hollingsworth.  This year he’s Muddles the Jester, and he’s as irritable as Nanny Fanny is amiable.  Hollingsworth’s short temper and long-suffering stance are the perfect foil for Lauchlan’s kindnesses, and also for the more saccharine elements of the story.  If this partnership ever splits, the Belgrade will probably crumble.

In the title role, Melissa Brown-Taylor is a plucky Princess Belle, while Joanna Thorne’s Prince Valiant is leggy and heroic as a principal boy should be; (it seems contemporary theatre is catching up with the gender-swapping that has been a staple of pantomime all along!).  Declan Wilson is a cuddly King Hugo, with Vicky Field making an impression as his ill-tempered, ill-fated Queen.  Field soon reappears as Grunge, sidekick to the evil fairy in an enjoyable portrayal.  Anna Mitcham’s good fairy Azurial is, in her own words, ‘perky’, assisted by a troupe of youngsters as her fairy assistants.  But it is Laura Judge’s villainous Carabosse who almost steals the show.  Bitterly melodramatic, Judge’s high-camp performance is a treat.

There is spectacle, of course: watch out for a dragon (it’d be hard to miss!) and a lively ensemble in beautiful story-book costumes by Terry Parsons.  Jenny Phillips’s choreography gets its big moment in the Act Two opener.  The original songs (by Lauchlan, Liz Kitchen and Steve Etherington) aren’t bad, each one serving its purpose and played by a tight combo under the able baton of Dan Griffin.  There are well-worn routines given a new spin, and up-to-date topical references.

The overall feel is trad meets new, and like the Prince and Princess, it’s a perfect match.

Iain Lauchlan & Craig Hollingsworth as Nanny McWheeze & Muddles - photo credit Robert Day

Something’s come between us! Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth perform a spot of high culture (Photo: Robert Day)


Singing with The Enemy

WE’LL LIVE AND DIE IN THESE TOWNS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 2nd October, 2018

 

Geoff Thompson’s new musical takes its score from the debut album of Coventry band, The Enemy.  Not being familiar with the group or their work, I am able to take the show at face-value, without the jolts of recognition that usually come with jukebox musicals.  Mamma Mia! this ain’t!   Telling the story of front man Argy’s struggle with a sudden, paralysing attack of stage fright on the day of his big homecoming gig, this turns out to be a thoughtful, poignant piece, as Argy embarks on an odyssey to face people from his past life in obscurity and come to terms with issues that have been plaguing him all along.

Thompson’s dialogue has a lyrical quality, which elevates the exchanges, adding to the mystical nature of Argy’s quest for enlightenment.  The show is structured mainly around two-handed scenes, with each person Argy encounters bringing up a different facet of our protagonist’s past.

Quinn Patrick is excellent as Argy’s ailing brother, a lapsed poet, in a bittersweet scene – Patrick later doubles as a comedy vicar for the show’s most spiritual scene.  Julie Mullins (formerly of Neighbours) provides strong support in a couple of roles, making me think how well suited she’d be for the role of Mrs Johnson in Blood Brothers… while Steven Serlin makes a strong impression as Argy’s manager and later as former friend, Owl, complete with a creditable Brummie accent.  Mark Turnbull shines as a bearded busker, with the look of the late Chas Hodges and a voice similar to Tom Jones, and Molly-Grace Cutler is suitably bitter and resentful as Argy’s alcoholic sister.  Meg Forgan also steps out of the backing band to portray Megan, thrilled to be namechecked in one of Argy’s songs.

But it is the central performance from Tom Milner as the troubled troubadour that keeps us hooked, in a sensitive, rounded and powerful portrayal, with searing vocals and a charismatic presence.  We sort of know all along Argy’s going to get his act together, but Milner takes us with him on Argy’s journey so that when the gig finally comes it’s a moment of exhilarating release.

It’s all played out on the stylised urban landscape of Patrick Connellan’s concrete block set, backed by projections of local streets and buildings.  Director Hamish Glen balances the humour and the poignancy of each scene; the show is bittersweet but never maudlin.

There are a couple of scenes that could do with trimming in terms of getting their point across but on the whole, this is an intelligent, grown-up piece with a strong, melodic score that proves irresistible by the end.  The onstage band is tight, the cast members uniformly brilliant, making for a thought-provoking and ultimately moving experience.  Argy’s journey seems deeply personal but Thompson’s writing speaks to the artist he believes to reside in each of us.

Electrifying.

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The Enemy within: Argy (Tom Milner) battles his demons (Photo: Robert Day)

 


Rough Magic

THE TEMPEST

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 19th June, 2018

 

It’s not the first time The Tempest has been set in outer space.  The film, Forbidden Planet, translated the action – and the text – to a sci-fi setting; then a stage show, one of the first jukebox musicals, Return To The Forbidden Planet used Shakespearean lines in tandem with 1960s songs.  Now, Oddsocks Productions return to the play with sci-fi in mind, along with their trademark silliness and pop music… and it all makes for an evening of bonkers entertainment.

The Shakespeare is peppered with sci-fi references, with Star Trek featuring heavily, and Star Wars a close second.  Prospero is a kind of Old Ben Kenobi figure, with daughter Miranda’s hair curled in Princess Leia-like buns.  An engineer called Scottie even puts in an appearance.  The stroke of genius is having Trinculo, usually a jester, portrayed as a droid – Top marks to Gavin Harrison for his Anthony Daniels/C3PO impersonation!  Harrison also appears as the villainous Antonio, a baddie in search of a panto; although the cuts to the script mean he doesn’t get up to much, Harrison poses and postures beautifully, and it’s a pleasure to boo him.

Another stalwart returning for more madness is Dominic Gee Burch.  His Caliban, a mutant fish-man, as if the Creature from the Black Lagoon got too close to a nuclear reactor, is a gift for a gifted physical comedian.  New to the company, Amy Roberts makes a snooty ‘Alonza’, while her drunken ‘Stephanie’ is straight out of Starfleet Academy – the Geordie Shore campus.  Making her Oddsocks debut as a feisty, petulant Miranda, Alice Merivale is wildly enjoyable.  Her scenes with Ferdinand are especially good – mainly because it’s a moment when Shakespeare is allowed to come to the fore.  As Ferdinand and also an alien Ariel, Matt Penson speaks the verse beautifully, while maintaining the sense of anarchic fun that characterises an Oddsocks performance.

Director/genius Andy Barrow plays Prospero, like a bald Gandalf wafting his magic staff about, and he’s as gloriously silly as you’d expect, yet when it comes to the big speeches, Prospero’s famous lines (We are such stuff as dreams are made on…) he plays it straight, as though establishing his credentials.  Not that he needs to, of course, but he wisely reins in the slapstick and the silliness and the mucking around and lets the power of Shakespeare’s words work its magic.  Speaking of magic, the special effects are all gloriously low-tech, with some simple conjuring tricks adding to the atmosphere.

There are a couple of misfires but overall, it’s more hit than miss, and you’re never waiting long for the next thing to laugh at.  I feel more could be made of the Caliban and Trinculo under a blanket scene, for example, but then there are moments of sheer brilliance: I don’t want to spoil anything, but Ridley Scott’s Alien has a lot to answer for.

If you haven’t seen The Tempest before, you might not find this version all that enlightening.  If you haven’t (and if you have!) seen Oddsocks before, you’re in for a wild ride and a rocking good time.

prospero-and-miranda-meteor-shower

Brave new worlds! Prospero (Andy Barrow) and Miranda (Alice Merivale)


Just My Cup of Chai

THE GAME OF LOVE AND CHAI

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 24th April, 2018

 

Marivaux’s 18th Century French farce, The Game of Love and Chance, gets an update from Tara Arts and Nigel Planer of The Young Ones, no less.  It’s a remarkably good fit, translating the action from the French bourgeoisie to a present-day Indian family in Britain, where notions of class and caste dictate social mores and aspirations.  Widowed Kamala-Ji is keen to marry off daughter Rani, who is a successful, independent young woman who works as a solicitor.  Rani wishes to retain her independence until she can marry for love, if there is such a match to be made.  She faces pressure from trashy cousin Sita, who contrasts with Rani in every way possible.  A prospective groom is on his way to size up his potential wife… Rani and Sita concoct a plan to switch identities and do some sizing up of the groom for themselves.  Unbeknownst to them, the groom has hatched an identical plan and has switched with his unlicensed Uber driver…

The script is peppered with bang up-to-date references along with Punjabi (I think it is) words and phrases but the performance style is all traditional.  There is a declamatory aspect to the delivery, direct audience address, and much heightened posing and posturing.  The characters are drawn with broad strokes and the action is almost cartoonish at times.  It is, all of it, hilarious.

Director Jatinder Verma has an eye for comic detail and doesn’t miss a trick, keeping things snappy so this fabulous confection has no opportunity to stale.  The action is broken up with Bollywood song-and-dance numbers, all performed with gusto and fun – where the French originals would have featured courtly masques or brief balletic interludes.  Claudia Mayer’s set gives us a garden of privet archways for the comings and goings, with a backdrop of suburban semis peering over the top.  Her costumes strongly signal the characters (and their disguises) and there is a glorious nod to Marivaux in the finale, courtesy of designer Adam Wilshire.

Goldy Notay is absolutely delicious as matriarch Kamala-Ji, with Deven Modha great fun as Rani’s camp brother Sunny.  Ronny Jhutti throws himself into the role of Nitin – the driver masquerading as the groom – with relish, while both Kiren Jogi’s Sita and Sharon Singh’s Rani clearly differentiate when they are pretending to be each other.  Singh is especially good, bringing more than a hint of snobbishness a la Penelope Keith to her portrayal of the snitty Rani.  Adam Samuel-Rai makes an energetic, passionate, even neurotic suitor, as the handsome Raj.  The entire ensemble rises to the demands of this kind of material, popping off quickfire asides and larger-than-life reactions with skill.

This fast and funny production reminds us that the old theatrical forms and conventions still have currency and that people have much in common whatever their cultural background.  A fabulous treat of a show; I loved every second.

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Adam Samuel-Bal and Sharon Singh wrestling (with their emotions)


Playing Doctors and Nurses

MINDGAME

Belgrade Theatre, Wednesday 14th March, 2018

 

Prolific writer Anthony Horowitz turns his attention to the stage with this small-scale thriller very much along the lines of mega-hits Sleuth and Deathtrap – plays that have a small cast, an intriguing plot and more twists than a Chubby Checker convention.  The set-up: we meet Styler, waiting in the office of Dr Farquhar, in an upmarket mental health facility aka hospital for the criminally insane.  Styler, dictating into a recorder, doles out exposition: he is a true-crime writer come to interview notorious inmate, the serial killer Easterman, for his next project; the doctor has been keeping him waiting for two hours…

We pick up right away that things are not what they seem.  Contradictions in the dialogue and, more subtly, changes in the set: a video screen for the window changes imperceptibly, for example.  As soon as Farquhar shows up, the plot gets into motion.  The doctor is something of an oddball – and the discerning audience member will be trying to pre-empt the surprises and guess the outcome.

It’s played with conviction.  Andrew Ryan’s Styler and Michael Sherwin’s Farquhar complement each other well, with the doctor more often than not holding court, adding to the weirdness and the unsettling feeling that something bad is about to take place.  Making up the trio is Sarah Wynne Kordas as Nurse Paisley – or is she?  Violence erupts, power shifts, layers of falsehood and diversion are stripped away… There are a few gasps from the audience who don’t see things coming, but the plot, rather than thickening, seems diluted by each new turnabout, and there are holes in the logic you could drive an ambulance through.

What we are left with is a bit of a mess, an exercise in unpleasantness that doesn’t measure up to the aforementioned greats of the genre.  It’s well-presented and director Karen Henson focusses our attention and gives us surprises at all the right moments but for me the play doesn’t gel, and mental illness as entertainment has surely had its day. I’m not crazy about it.

Not as clever as it pretends, Mindgame teases, amuses and puzzles but is ultimately unsatisfying.

mindgame

Michael Sherwin and Andrew Ryan enjoy a cosy chat